Chinese, in its various forms, is spoken by more people than any other language in the world. There really is no single Chinese language. What are usually called "dialects" of Chinese, are really several different languages, some as different from each other as English and German. The two most well-known are Mandarin, the official language of China, spoken by over 800 million people (which by itself has the most speakers of any language), and Cantonese, spoken in the province of Canton (I can't remember the proper name for this), and in Hong Kong. Another Chinese "dialect" is Wu, which has just under 100 million speakers.

Chinese is well-known for its writing system, which the systems of most other languages, is not an alphabet or even a syllabry. The Chinese writing system has influenced the writing systems of many other East Asian languages, most notable Japanese. In addition, many languages spoken around China have borrowed many words from Chinese.

However, contrary to popular belief, Chinese is not related to many of the languages spoken around it, such as Japanese and Korean. Chinese is one of the Sino-Tibeten languages, which, as the name implies, also includes Tibetan (the Sino refers to Chinese), and also Burmese. Thai, Lao (closely related languages spoken in Thailand and Laos), and Vietnamese are sometimes grouped as part of Sino-Tibeten, but this is probably due to the large number of words borrowed from Chinese.

Sino-Tibetan may be part of a still-controversial larger group called Dene-Caucasian. This group (if you accept it), includes not only Sino-Tibetan, but Basque, a language spoken between France and Spain, usually thought to be an isolate, completely unrelated to all other languages, the Caucasian languages (spoken in the Caucus mountains) except for Georgian, a few other minor languages of Siberia and Asia, and the Na-Dene languages, a group of Native American languages including Navajo.

There are also more detailed lineages of Dene-Caucasian and Sino-Tibetan.

Disclaimer--All information on this page came from the top of my head. It should be accurate, however, there may be mistakes.
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March 21, 1997